About a month ago, my beloved sister (and occasional ZD contributor) Melyngoch entered the MTC on her way to the Sweden Stockholm mission. I expect that she will be a very good missionary. She seems to have a great sense of purpose: she knows who she is and what she is doing and why.
I suspect that there are probably many twenty-something women in the Church who would similarly make very good missionaries. So I wonder why the Church discourages women from serving.
“But the Church doesn’t discourage women from serving!” I hear you saying. Oh, but I think it does. The best evidence I can come up with is President Hinckley’s 1997 General Conference talk where he discussed the issue of women serving missions:
There seems to be growing in the Church an idea that all young women as well as all young men should go on missions. We need some young women. They perform a remarkable work. They can get in homes where the elders cannot.
. . . I wish to say that the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve are united in saying to our young sisters that they are not under obligation to go on missions. I hope I can say what I have to say in a way that will not be offensive to anyone. Young women should not feel that they have a duty comparable to that of young men. Some of them will very much wish to go. If so, they should counsel with their bishop as well as their parents. If the idea persists, the bishop will know what to do.
I say what has been said before, that missionary work is essentially a priesthood responsibility. As such, our young men must carry the major burden. This is their responsibility and their obligation.
We do not ask the young women to consider a mission as an essential part of their life’s program. Over a period of many years, we have held the age level higher for them in an effort to keep the number going relatively small. Again to the sisters I say that you will be as highly respected, you will be considered as being as much in the line of duty, your efforts will be as acceptable to the Lord and to the Church whether you go on a mission or do not go on a mission.
We constantly receive letters from young women asking why the age for sister missionaries is not the same as it is for elders. We simply give them the reasons. We know that they are disappointed. We know that many have set their hearts on missions.
President Hinckley appears to have two major points here. First, men are obligated to serve and women are not. Second, getting to serve a mission must therefore be made more difficult for women. He sounds like he’s saying that the second point follows from the first, that because men have an obligation and women do not, women must be discouraged from going.
This doesn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t it be possible for men to have an obligation to serve and for women to simply be allowed to serve if they want to, rather than artificially making it more difficult for women to serve? Is President Hinckley suggesting that it somehow reduce men’s sense of obligation to serve if too many women serve? Or is he saying that there are a limited number of missionary slots available and that if too many women serve, there won’t be enough slots for all the worthy men who are obligated to serve?
I’m also curious about President Hinckley’s suggestion that women want to serve missions because they feel that they won’t be as highly respected in the Church if they don’t. Doesn’t it seem equally likely that women in the Church want to serve simply because learning the gospel has incited a missionary zeal in them? As Elder Ballard described in a 2005 General Conference talk:
When our youth understand the significance of the Restoration of the gospel and know for themselves that God is our Heavenly Father and He loves all of His children, that Jesus is the Christ, and that together They personally visited Joseph Smith to open this, the final dispensation of time, they will want to help carry this message to the world.
Okay, let me be a little more systematic about this. I’ll list some possible reasons why the Church might want to discourage women from serving missions and comment briefly on each one.
1. If too many women serve, it will reduce men’s sense of obligation to serve. This argument parallels a common argument made against ordaining women: if women are ordained, men will slack and do nothing, expecting women to do everything. I don’t buy it. First, it seems like it would be straightforward to continue to convey the message “men are obligated and women are not” while at the same time simply letting women who want to serve, serve, rather than discouraging them. I can’t see that making it easier for women to serve will convey the message to men “you don’t really have to go now.” Also, as with the argument against ordaining women, how pathetic are men if we can only fulfill our obligations if women are kept from doing them? If we’re that bad, are we really worth saving? Why accommodate our weakness? Let’s have a bunch of talks about how the natural man who does nothing because he expects women to do it all is an enemy to God.
2. There are a limited number of missionary slots available and that if too many women serve, there won’t be enough slots for all the worthy men who are obligated to serve. This seems unlikely. More likely, the Church would be more than happy to expand the missionary program to accommodate any number of potential worthy missionaries. After all, Elder Ballard, in the same talk I quoted above, was asking for each ward or branch to send one more missionary than they had been planning–a plan which would increase the missionary force by 26,000, he said.
3. Women only want to serve missions because they feel that they won’t be as highly respected in the Church if they don’t. As I said above, I think it’s just as likely that women’s desire to serve is, like men’s, simply a reflection of their internalizing the gospel including the charge to share it. I think President Hinckley’s description of disappointed women who have “set their heart on missions” supports this.
4. The purpose of missions is to prepare future Church leaders as much as it is to convert people. As men fill the vast majority of leadership positions in the Church, men should be the ones serving. (This is based on a comment made by “me” [not me, Ziff, but a commenter going by the name of “me”] in a discussion at FMH back in June.) I don’t disagree that serving a mission might prepare a person for a leadership position in the Church. But it seems misguided to me to put the focus of the missionary effort on anything other than proclaiming the gospel. I think this argument also boils down to #2; it only matters that women are serving when men need leadership training if there are a limited number of missionary slots.
5. Sisters are (on average) more effective missionaries than elders. If there are more sisters, their success will discourage the elders. This is a variation on #1. If elders are only willing to serve on the condition that there aren’t sisters around to show them up, they shouldn’t be serving in the first place. That sisters are more effective actually seems like an argument in favor of allowing more women to serve.
6. Sisters’ greater effectiveness is the result of a selection bias: when most women don’t serve, desire to serve is likely correlated with expected effectiveness. If more sisters served, their average effectiveness would decline. This argument could be applied to elders as well. They would be far more effective on average if only a few, who were likely to be the most motivated, were allowed to serve.
7. As missionary work is “essentially a priesthood responsibility,” men will be failing in their priesthood obligation if the percentage of missionaries who are women reaches some level (25? 50?). If there is some magic level beyond which the percentage of sister missionaries must not increase, isn’t it a pretty sad comment on men that the only way it can be maintained is by actively discouraging women from serving? In fact, I would say that if this is the case, it means that men are already collectively failing in their obligation, and there’s really nothing to be gained by actively discouraging women in order to artificially keep their percentage below a certain level. It’s not as though God will be fooled by this ploy into thinking that men really are doing better than they are.
8. Serving a mission is a kind of male rite of passage in the Church. If too many women serve, it dilutes the value of that rite of passage. This must be part of the unwritten order of things. If it’s that important, why are women allowed to serve at all?
9. Male RMs rely on the
manipulation commitment pattern to find a wife. If their potential dates know the commitment pattern too, the men are sunk. Don’t laugh! I recall several elders from my mission saying that they didn’t want to marry or date RMs because of precisely this reason. I wouldn’t worry too much about male RMs’ marriage prospects, as the numbers weigh in their favor with more active single women than men in the Church.
10. Sisters will convert more women than elders will. There are already more active women than men in the Church, and that’s with a heavily male missionary force. More women converts will just push the sex ratio farther out of balance. I suspect that it is true that more sister missionaries would mean more women converts, and therefore a higher ratio of women to men in the Church. But it seems unfair to refuse to preach to women just because we can’t guarantee them a husband in the Church.
11. Women who serve missions are giving up a couple of prime childbearing years, when they could be married and starting a family. The simple solution to this issue would be to allow women to serve at 19.
12. Lots of elders and sisters serving together in the same mission will lead to lots of law of chastity violations. Elders and sisters seem to generally do okay now, even though they serve together in the same mission. But if it really became a problem, why couldn’t missions be segregated? Missions in areas where the Church is well established, with plenty of members to do the necessary baptizing, etc. could be sisters-only, for example.
13. We don’t want to send women into dangerous places. The more sisters who serve, the more likely this will happen. As with #12, if this is really a concern, there are workarounds. Perhaps sisters, if serving outside their own countries, could be sent only to the most stable countries in the developed world.
So what are the Church’s reasons for discouraging sisters from serving? I would guess #1, #3, #4, and #7 are the most likely. Like I said, though, I don’t find any of these arguments compelling.
Now I’d like to turn the question around: Why do we have any women serving missions? It’s not very hard to imagine a different universe in which President Hinckley, instead of saying that missionary work is “essentially a priesthood responsibility,” said that missionary work is “wholly a priesthood responsibility.” Rather than telling of women who were discouraged because they weren’t allowed to serve at 19, he would tell of women who were discouraged because they weren’t allowed to serve at all. This universe would be only slightly different from our own. I’m sure there is plenty of justification in the scriptures and words of the latter-day prophets for denying women the chance to serve as missionaries. For example, when Jesus sent the eleven apostles to teach all nations, the apostles were all men.
In fact, all of the above arguments (with the possible exception of #5 and #6) could be made in support of a policy that didn’t allow any women to serve as missionaries. As I noted with #1, some of them (such as #11 and #12) are used to varying degrees in support of our male-only priesthood. To me, the fact that the Church allows even some women to serve missions indicates that the Church leaders may not wholly agree with any of these arguments against women serving missions. Therefore, I wonder if perhaps the current policy of allowing sisters to serve but discouraging them from doing so might not be eventually replaced by a policy that allows sisters to serve just as elders do (at age 19, for two years, without requiring that they “persist” in asking) even while it will almost certainly maintain the distinction that men are obligated to serve while women are not.
So what do you think? Are women discouraged from serving missions? If so, why? Will the policy change?